The Chinese government has recently legalized the internment camps that are located in Xinjiang. The internments camps are, according to the Chinese government, vocational schools that are a part of a counter-terrorist program in Xinjiang, which has a large quantity of Uighur Muslims.
First, it is pertinent to clarify some facts on this heavily debated subject.
Where is this taking place? Xinjiang is China’s biggest region and is bordered by numerous countries, for example India, Afghanistan and Mongolia. Xinjiang is in the far west of China and has autonomy. This autonomy means that Xinjiang in theory has self-governance. However, in reality Beijing is heavily influencing and restricting the region, with great consequence for the Uighur and ethnic minority population.
Now, who are the Uyghurs exactly? The Uyghurs are Muslims who regards themselves, culturally and ethnically, closest to Central Asian nations. The Uyghur language is similar to Turkish. In recent years large amounts of Han Chinese have migrated to Xinjiang, so the two most commonly spoken languages are Mandarin Chinese and Uighur. The average Uighur male has a life expectancy of 74 years, while the average Uighur woman has a life expectancy of 79 years.
But what is the problem in Xinjiang? In August 2018 reports were brought to a United Nations human rights committee. The reports claimed that China was detaining around one million people in what resembles internment camps. These claims are backed by Human Rights Watch confirming that compromised individuals with relatives in “sensitive” countries like Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey have been detained. Amnesty International also claims to have been in contact with up to a 100 people whose families are currently being detained in the internment camps. Amongst these detained individuals are Uighur Muslims, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities that are native to the region.
China vehemently denied the existence of the internment camps for a long time, up until October 2018 when they appear to have legalized these vocational, re-education programs. The programs are supposed to help educate individuals who have been accused of religious extremism.
The Chinese government continues to deny that there is any “arbitrary detention or lack of freedom or belief”. According to Hu Lianhe – who is a spokeswoman for China’s United Front Work Department – does all the citizens of Xinjiang enjoy equal freedom and rights.
In the revised Article 33 of Xinjiang law it is now stipulated that vocational training centers should carry out all their training in the national common language (Mandarin), laws and regulations. The vocational training centers should also teach vocational skills and perform anti-extremist ideological education. Also, there will be psychological and behavioral correction that will help promote the thought transformation of the trainees. All of this is done so that the students may return to society and their families, according to the Chinese government.
Former inmates of the internment camps are not so positive. Mihrigul Tursun is a Uighur Muslim, who is currently living in exile in Virginia, U.S.A. Tursun had been living and working in Egypt and decided to return to China with her triplets when they where a few months old.
Upon arriving in Urumqi, Xinjiang, in March 2015, Tursun was detained by police and her children taken from her. Tursun’s three children were hospitalized and are theorized to have been fed through an intravenous tube, which is supported by scars on the children’s neck. When Tursun arrived to pick up her children upon her release, she was only given two children, Elina and Moez, and was told her third child, Mohaned, had died during surgery the day before. According to Tursun, she was presented with the corpse of her infant son, who was indeed deceased.
According to Tursun she was detained, questioned and tortured three more times before she succeeded in leaving China. Tursun describes the circumstances in the internment camps as abysmal. During her second imprisonment she was put in a small cell with 50 other women from her hometown, who all are ethnic Uighurs. There were so many people in the cell, that they had to take turn sleeping and standing. According to Tursun she saw nine detainees die during her time in the cell.
One 62-year-old lady was filled with rashes on her legs and face and died in her sleep after 6 months in the cell. A 23-year-old mother of two, blead out after having non-stop menstrual bleedings for two months. She collapsed while it was her turn standing. Tursun recalls the guards dragged her away by her feet. She had spent thirteen months in the cell.
These stories, from internment camp survivors, all follow along the same patterns of violence and belligerence.
The Chinese government, however, paints a different picture of the “vocational training facilities”. The Chinese government invited reporters to three centers in Kashgar, Hotan and Karakax in Xinjiang. The reporters were allowed to see a class where it was explained to the students, in mandarin, that not allowing dancing or singing at weddings or crying at a funeral was a sign of extremist thought and behavior.
According to Reuters, which had reporter Ben Blanchard present there, none of the detainees appeared to have been mistreated.
There was, however, singing and dancing at the vocational center, where a class did an English rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands”, that appeared to have been prepared for the visit, with microphones available for chosen students.
Reuters interviewed some of the detainees. Many used very similar language when they explained to Blanchard that they had been “infected with extremist thoughts”. For example, a girl, aged 26, explained her infection had made her wear a face veil. Another man explained that he had been influenced by extremist thought, that had made him refuse to serve anyone in his shop that wasn’t Muslim.
Western society is slowly becoming aware of the persecution of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. NGO’s like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are shedding light on the issues, alongside several major news outlets. Information about the current happenings in Xinjiang and in the re-education centers are extremely limited due to the Chinese governments strict hold on the news flow and internet access. However, former detainees from the re-education centers keep coming forth, telling their sides of the story. Stories that are very different from the picture the Chinese government try to sell.